Since launching in June, Durham’s crisis response pilot programs have proven that unarmed first responders and mental health clinicians can successfully address nonviolent 911 calls without the help of law enforcement—and that with greater staffing, the programs could be helping a lot more people, according to new data from the Community Safety Department.

The three programs, which operate under the name HEART—Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams—have so far embedded a mental health expert in Durham’s 911 call center; dispatched a three-person team of skilled, unarmed first responders to address behavioral health calls within a 15-mile region of the city; and provided in-person or phone-based follow-up care for callers 48 hours of their crises.

As of August 30, HEART has responded to 428 calls, with most relating to trespassing, urgent and nonurgent welfare checks, and intoxication. In-person response teams have not run into any safety issues, according to Community Safety Department director Ryan Smith.

“One of the biggest concerns that we heard during our year of planning … was what it meant to send unarmed responders to calls that we used to send police to with guns,” Smith says. “I think we see here the same thing that we have seen in other cities [with crisis response programs]: that there are calls that we can safely and appropriately send additional responders instead of law enforcement, and that we can free up those resources for law enforcement to focus on other areas.”

Of the 428 calls, 204 were addressed by in-person community response teams, 40 involved follow-up care, and 183 were handled over the phone by Leigh Mazur, the mental health clinician embedded in the 911 center.

If a caller requires in-person assistance, Mazur can dispatch a community response team, but she’s found that many callers can work through their crises over the phone. 

Recently, she says, she spoke with a caller who was experiencing delusions and “had a firm belief that certain events were happening in her home.”

“She was used to getting a lot of feedback about how things were not real, things are not happening; how this is not true, what she’s seeing and hearing,” Mazur says. “I was able to approach it from a lens of, ‘this is real for you in this moment—let’s just focus on that, and what it must be like to think that these things are happening.”

By offering an appropriate verbal mental health response, Mazur was able to alleviate the caller’s distress.

“It’s important to be able to talk to somebody specifically in the moment of crisis,” Mazur says. 

While Mazur has helped scores of callers over the past two months, she’s only one person, and Durham is a big city. Since early June, the 911 center has received 4,736 calls that warranted a community safety response, according to the data released Monday. With their current staffing, the HEART programs have been able to address about one-tenth of them.

But the team is set to expand soon: next week, the programs will start offering their services seven days a week, instead of five, and by October, Smith says the program will hopefully have two additional three-person response teams, one two-person follow-up team, and another mental health clinician in the 911 center.

The fourth and final pilot program, which will dispatch pairs of mental health clinicians and police officers in response to calls with greater safety risks, will launch in September.

“We have a good foundation,” Smith says. “We still have important things to learn, and it’s only been two months. So I think it’s important to give it time.”

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